Feb 27, 2024 - Politics

How "Dreamers" could help ease Seattle's cop shortage

Illustration of a monarch butterfly on a police badge.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Washington state may open up police and firefighting jobs to thousands of immigrants who are part of an Obama-era program that shields them from deportation.

Why it matters: The proposal to let people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program work as police officers and firefighters is aimed partly at combating staffing shortages, which have been a problem in Seattle and elsewhere.

Making DACA recipients eligible could also increase the number of police and firefighters who speak multiple languages, helping agencies better serve immigrant communities, some state officials hope.

Catch up quick: State officials estimate Washington is home to more than 14,000 DACA recipients, who received relief from deportation and the ability to legally work under the 2012 federal program.

  • To qualify, DACA participants must have come to the U.S. before their 16th birthday and lack legal authorization to live in the United States, plus pass a rigorous criminal background check.
  • They're sometimes referred to as "Dreamers" — after federal legislation that aimed to provide similar protections but never passed.
  • The DACA program hasn't processed new applications since 2021.

The latest: A bill that has passed Washington's state Senate would let DACA recipients apply to become city firefighters, city police, fish and wildlife officers or county sheriff's deputies.

  • Right now, U.S. permanent residents can apply for those jobs in Washington, but DACA participants can't.
  • The measure would also let local police and fire chiefs add points to candidates' scores on hiring exams if those applicants speak multiple languages fluently.

What they're saying: "DACA recipients are members of our communities, and they should have the opportunity to be part of our police departments," Lindsey Hueer, lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities, said during a public hearing earlier this month.

  • James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, told lawmakers that some departments have had to turn away DACA recipients who come to them wanting to be police officers.
  • "We shouldn't ever have to do that," McMahan said.

Inside the room: Republicans and Democrats alike are supporting the change, citing difficulties police and fire agencies have had recruiting lately.

  • "We have a huge need for more folks in law enforcement — it makes perfect sense to us that we ought to help folks get into that profession," state Senate Minority Leader John Braun (R-Centralia) told reporters this month.

Zoom in: Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell is among those backing the legislation.

  • Staffing at the Seattle Police Department fell from more than 1,400 sworn officers in 2017 to fewer than 1,050 last year, Police Chief Adrian Diaz told a Seattle City Council committee Feb. 13.
  • The Seattle Fire Department, meanwhile, has 120 open firefighting jobs, Chief Harold Scoggins told committee members.

Zoom out: California and Colorado have already passed laws opening up law enforcement jobs to DACA recipients.

What's next: The Washington proposal, Senate Bill 6157, could come up for a floor vote in the state House sometime this week.

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